Starved for good sci-fi cinema? “Me too,” says writer, filmmaker, and digital-age Renaissance dude Jim Munroe, namechecking Children of Men and Sound of My Voice as recent exceptions to the general dreariness of the genre.
We can add Munroe’s newest movie to the list. In some way, Ghosts With Shit Jobs exceeds any of the big-money product he mentions, based on the brilliance of the film’s ideas and the strength of its execution. Set in Toronto in 2040, Ghosts unspools as a Chinese TV mockumentary examining the desperate lives of Torontonians forced into shit jobs by the West’s economic collapse.
The first thing you notice—hopefully with a mixture of amusement and discomfort—is the faux concern expressed by the show’s anchors, something Munroe describes as “cannibalizing another country’s misery”. In the film’s not totally alternative universe, power and wealth have shifted to Asia—the term ghosts being derived from the Cantonese slang gweillo, or “white ghost”— although the filmmaker notes that his particular vision of the new geo-economic order is irrelevant to the film’s larger point.
“I feel like the people on top, no matter what nationality they are, will probably be patronizing and condescending,” he says, adding with a snort: “Just like we were when we were on top.” Such is the wicked satire underpinning the film, which then fans out in multiple directions. Among the ghosts with shit jobs is the gorgeous but mercenary Serina, a “human spammer” who oozes through office spaces and bars, targeting hapless guys and getting paid to drop brand names into their conversation.
Then there’s Karen, whose PhD in robotics has gotten her no further than building disturbingly lifelike baby dolls for Chinese kids—a job that might be undermining the childless woman’s sanity, especially since she has to eliminate the “defectives”. Toph and Anton, meanwhile, are homeless brothers who collect the silk of giant mutant spiders, which they exchange for water. Saddest of all is “digital janitor” Oscar. He erases corporate logos from “in world”, a virtual reality constructed from the city’s surveillance cameras.
“There seems to be a constant underlying fear through news reports and scary graphs, this constant churn in the news media about our decline and the rise of China and other countries in the East,” Munroe says. “But there wasn’t anything dealing with it in the fictional form. On some level I wanted to make it more human—what it would be like for day-to-day people in this world if the graphs came to be.”
Notably, Munroe himself is quite sanguine about our real-world prospects. “I don’t feel that strongly about the economic forecast,” he offers. “I don’t really have a genuine anxiety around it, but it might have something to do with the fact that I’ve always lived below the poverty line as an artist. It’ll be a shorter drop for me than it is for someone making schoolteacher money or something.”
You can take that to the bank. Munroe and his three codirectors made Ghosts for—get this—$4,000. “One of the jokes we make with this is that it’s not just about how people make more with less,” he says. “It’s made with that principle.”
Jim Munroe presents Ghosts With Shit Jobs at the Rio Theatre on Tuesday (December 18).